Mitzi Meyerson has been delving of late for Glossa into unjustly forgotten keyboard repertory from the Baroque. Praised by no less a critic than Nicholas Kenyon for her recording of Gottlieb Muffat’s Componimenti Musicali per il Cembalo (“Eureka! I’ve known these wonderful pieces for years, having bought an old edition of the music, but have never heard them properly performed. So it’s a joy to hear Mitzi Meyerson’s glorious realisation of these 18th-century suites, which lie at the heart of the high baroque style...”), Meyerson now turns her attention to the shadowy figure of Englishman Richard Jones. Little is known about this composer, other than that he was the leader of the Drury Lane orchestra in London, that he wrote some works for the stage as well as the Suits or Setts of Lessons for the Harpsicord or Spinet and that he died in 1744. These “Setts” are infused with a rhythmic vigour and an Italianate character which may point a possible awareness of the keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Jones comes from an era in English music dominated (today as in its own time) by the figure of Georg Friedrich Handel and in the booklet for this new CD Mitzi Meyerson explores the nature of Richard Jones’ music and her reaction to them and offers up an interpretation both cultured and virtuosic. Here, the Chicago-born keyboard player muses further on the pleasures of rediscovering musical jewels from the past.
How does learning more about the less well-known composers of the Baroque period affect our appreciation of the great and famous ones? Did other 18th century English composers write as freshly and imaginatively as Richard Jones?
Every art form has its ‘one-time wonders’. There are painters who do one or two insightful portraits and then a lot of routine pictures, writers who publish a great first book and then never manage the same level again, and composers who write a single profoundly-beautiful movement in a suite of otherwise boring ones. This is the case with a great many composers in every era. When the artist has built up a large body of excellent works, a few uninspired examples do not affect his reputation. One could say that not every single movement of the Handel harpsichord suites is the most exquisite thing ever heard, but it does not matter because the general level of his output was so high.
Perhaps one can appreciate the great and famous composers even more after doing a lot of research into what was out there at the same time. There were so many acceptable composers, but only a very few who were able to maintain this level of greatness. It is difficult to find a large body of work that is undiscovered or very obscure, and yet has a consistent standard of merit. Quite often there will be some excellent pieces amongst some weak ones; naturally this makes for a project that holds no interest for a recording company. This is not to say that the player should not pick out the jewels and present these in concert... only as a costly CD production there is little value in it. I have found many composers in this bracket. One finds a fantastic piece, gets wildly excited about it, and then reads the next 30 pieces that are humdrum and too formulaic to record. That is perhaps why these composers became extinct. If the bulk of the compositions are interesting and there are only a few duds, one can certainly accommodate this, make the most of them and inject a lot of personal interest. Most of the time when I find a lost composer, the balance runs the other way.
So, the answer to the question is: Yes! other lost English composers of the 18th century wrote as well as Mr Jones – but they did not do it all the time.
Can you describe the particular interests held in your various recording projects?
Every project presents a new set of challenges, and the music demands a fresh approach every time. I recorded for Glossa these solo CDs: Georg Böhm, Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, François Couperin, Gottlieb Muffat, and now Richard Jones. Each production has a different mission, but in every case I try to bring out works that are under-played or even totally obscure.
The Böhm suites are available but most people are unaware of these pieces, excepting the famous Preludium, Allegro and Postludium in G minor. I think this music has the same excellence as Froberger and Buxtehude, and has been undeservedly hidden. The point here was to bring out the complete set of suites for the first time, and make it available to the general public.
The works of Balbastre mystified me for many years. I loved some of the pieces right away and always wanted to record those, but there were many that eluded me. I couldn’t make them “work” on the harpsichord. The Alberti basses were clattery and annoying to my ears, and some of the lyrical pieces could not be played at the tempi I would have wished musically, because the sound of the harpsichord begins with a sharp ictus and decays too quickly to create a long line. By happy accident I came across a piano from 1792 (the same year in which Balbastre composed his Marche des marseillais), and suddenly all of those difficulties dissolved. Balbastre was writing in the time of transition between the harpsichord and the fortepiano. I could now record the twenty pieces very happily, divided exactly in half depending on the nature of the music. Those pieces had not bloomed for me before because I was trying them on the wrong instrument.
Of course François Couperin is one of the most famous of all harpsichord composers, but it is rather unusual for people to play the pieces from the Fourth Book. These are the most individual and quirky, the Ordres presenting less dance forms and more character pieces. The mission here was to play the less well-known of Couperin’s harpsichord music. It was a special joy for me because all the pieces are so exquisite.
Gottlieb Muffat was really obscure. Some people are familiar with the works of his famous father Georg, but no one knows or plays the compositions of Gottlieb (or Theofilo, as he calls himself on the title page of these suites). This project opened a lot of doors to musical investigation. Muffat was a real magpie, stealing shiny bits from everywhere. There is Bach imitation, Italian toccatas, strict German dances, flowing French ones, English hornpipes, and a lot of innovative stuff that has never been heard elsewhere before or since. As there was no precedent for some of this writing, sometimes I would read a piece and then just sit there, thinking “Hmmmmm...” to myself. It was a big challenge and a rewarding project; I was very happy that I could bring to light the complete harpsichord works of this practically invisible composer.
This new CD release of Richard Jones has been my favourite project. I was absolutely in love with these suites and rushed to practice them every day as though I was meeting a lover. Every piece in the entire oeuvre is excellent and imaginative, and there is every kind of human emotion ranging from the deeply serious to chortling joy. Dorothy Parker once wrote a snide critical review of an actress, saying, “She expressed the entire gamut of emotion from A to B.” In contrast to this idea, I think we could safely say that Richard Jones expresses the entire gamut from aaa to ZZZ. There are lots of musical surprises for the listener which will be apparent to anyone, but there are also secret surprises for the player. Sometimes voices travel between the hands and one needs to take alternate notes of a single line with the right and left hands. If this is done smoothly, it will not be noticeable at all; the music may sound easy, but it is actually highly virtuosic. It is a tremendous challenge for the player, in the same way that Scarlatti repeats a phrase exactly but writes it so that one must play with crossed hands. These are private jokes between the composer and the harpsichordist. Whenever I came across things like this in the Jones pieces, I felt a real connection to the man personally, wanted to nudge him with my elbow and say, “Oh, you!”
Since Richard Jones has been almost wholly forgotten, how have his Lessons for the Harpsichord survived?
There is a good modern edition of the Lessons by Stoddard Lincoln, available on Le Pupitre. I found the original printing of these works dated 1732, to check for discrepancies or other hints. Some of the notes were extremely hard to believe (for example in the crossee part of the Toccata in D minor, First Set), and yet there they were in the original printing as well. I was delighted to see that on the title page, where it is written, “For the Harpsicord or Spinnet”, someone of the time had crossed out the word “Spinnet”. That is my feeling exactly! One needs every possible range, especially when playing the complete works. I think the probable explanation of this is that more people would have had a spinet at home than a large harpsichord, and it was good marketing to write that these were compositions for the instrument most likely to be at hand. I do not know why people have essentially forgotten such good music. I hope that Richard Jones will enjoy a revival now that his works may be heard again on this CD.
What is next on the recording agenda?
I have two projects in hand right now. Since most of what I do is a première, I am reluctant to say what they are until very close to the release time. So, yes, I have things underway, but this will have to remain a mystery for the moment. Stay tuned to the Glossa station!
Do you have other interests besides revitalizing lost composers?
I lived in Bali for many years during my school holidays and trained as a doula (birth assistant), where I was on 24-hour call in a clinic. We routinely had up to six births in a single day, and I gathered a lot of experience in a short time. I wanted to continue this work in Europe so I went to a university course in London and got my qualifications as a certified doula. Certification wasn’t necessary in Indonesia but one needs these professional documents in the West. I now teach the Birth Doula module in this course at Middlesex University, and am a doula on the hospital labour ward during my school holiday time. The intensity and intimacy of music and birth are not so dissimilar as one might think. It makes me very happy to be involved in these situations, which are immensely rewarding when one can offer a completely open heart.
by Mark Wiggins © 2010 MusiContact / Glossa Music